XFL makes a good first impression, but history tells us that's the easy part for start-ups
The XFL debuted to a surprising buzz over the weekend. The games were well attended (all around 17,000), the product was better than expected, and TV ratings were solid.
The Houston entry, the Roughnecks, were one of the most impressive teams over the weekend, led by quarterback P.J. Walker, whose escapability and playmaking gave local fans something to cheer about.
Disclaimer: The games are being broadcast live on our station, ESPN 97.5, with the incomparable John Granato on the call. So I hope the league succeeds, because that is good for business. Having said that…
New leagues always do well opening week. Fans are curious and tune in. Sustaining it is always the issue. The first night of the original XFL drew a TV rating of over 10. The AAF had almost three million viewers in its debut and barely lasted a few more weeks. The new XFL topped that, but can it continue to keep fans interested?
I can't speak to the in-stadium experience, but plan to attend this week's game. However, the TV broadcast was terrific. Hearing the refs talk through the reviews and the transparency that came with it was fantastic. The coach interviews and playcalling were interesting too. There is always a chance the TV product is so good people do not go to the games.
The quality of play was pretty solid and clearly better than the AAF, although only one of the four games was close. That's to be expected with a startup, though.
The embracing of gambling is a good thing, although the announcers clearly have little knowledge in that regard and were just pandering to the audience. That, too, is to be expected.
The rules changes had surprisingly little impact on scores. The kickoff rule is interesting, as are the extra point options. But in general, teams stayed conservative and it was a lot closer to traditional football than some weird hybrid.
So what happens next?
Sustaining the crowds and TV ratings is a must. The league itself has solid coaching, which should make for more competitive games down the road. It also has Oliver Luck running things, which is a positive. Luck knows what he is doing.
But none of that matters if they can't keep people engaged. They have a smart model; they aren't trying to be the NFL, or hope the NFL subsidizes them like the AAF. They are trying to be a fun spring football league.
Can it work beyond Week 1? That remains to be seen, and it is easy to be skeptical. People have short attention spans, and March Madness is around the corner. Will people still be interested then?
A lot to learn
One of the criticisms is that most people don't know many of the players. That's fair. The league is hoping stars will emerge and people will get to know them then. P.J. Walker is clearly off to a good start in Houston. It's safe to say no one in Houston had heard of Nick Holley before Saturday. Players will need to emerge so fans will buy jerseys in addition to generic gear.
Judging from TV, there was a surprising number of fans in that gear at the game. Whether it was curiosity, the throw back to the Oilers with the name and logo, Bill O'Brien fatigue or the combination of all of the above, it went over well with a fan base that was engaged. They seemed to have fun. Our SportsMap coverage of the opener was well received.
Like them, as a football fan and a person who likes to wager, I enjoyed Week 1. But I'm also like a lot of people; will I stay interested in Weeks 4 and 5?
That is the XFL's multi-million dollar question. And we won't have an answer after one week.